It is, at first glance, one of the more unlikely of celluloid conjoinings: Millionaire televangelist with a self-help bestseller turned Passion play turned cinematic weepie meets up with a New York film company known for its edgy documentaries -- think al-Jazeera, the Ramones and Long Island pedophilia. Add to the mix the squirm-inducing topic of sexual abuse, and you've got a project that its creator readily admits was destined to head "straight to video."
Straight to video, perhaps, except that in Hollywood, you've always got to factor in the dollar factor. Which is to say, after the phenomenal success -- and the phenomenal controversy -- of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," religious-themed films like Bishop T.D. Jakes's "Woman Thou Art Loosed," which opens nationally tomorrow, are starting to look really, really good.
Then, too, there is the black gospel factor, where African American plays like "Woman Thou Art Loosed" and "When a Woman's Fed Up" (detect a theme here?) are largely ignored by theater critics but play to packed houses, where the marketing is all about word of mouth, and those mouths fill seats. Lots of them.
And then, of course, there is the Oprah factor: Snare some time on her show, as Jakes did this week in a two-parter airing today and tomorrow, and well, you know what happens then.
"Woman Thou Art Loosed" (the title refers to Jesus's command to a distraught woman to let go of her burdens) is poised to be a cinematic happening.
"This is not your typical comedy," Jakes says by phone from Los Angeles. "Nor is it your booty-shaking rap movie that is so prevalent today. We have no great car crashes. We have no stuntmen, no people shot off buildings. All we have is a compelling, riveting story."
That story begins literally with a bang, with Kimberly Elise ("Beloved," "The Manchurian Candidate") showing up at a church revival, gun in hand. Later, while on death row, she is visited by Jakes (playing himself), who counsels her on an emotional journey through her trauma-filled childhood, a childhood that included a negligent, man-hungry mother (Loretta Devine), rape at age 12 by her mother's live-in boyfriend, and then a downward spiral into substance abuse and prostitution.
The film was a low-budget affair. Jakes won't discuss numbers, saying only that the money was cobbled together by a few investors including actor Danny Glover and veteran casting agent Reuben Cannon, who serves as executive producer on the film. He alludes to it being a "David and Goliath" effort. They got the actors for "negotiated rates," and shot around the clock, often working from 9 in the morning until 3 the next morning.
"We scratched our way out, and we probably did have dirt under our fingernails," says Jakes, a man with a penchant for speaking in metaphors.
So back to the straight-to-video part: "Loosed" was Jakes's first attempt at moviemaking. A native of West Virginia, he'd already conquered publishing, with the book version selling more than 3 million copies. He'd had a solid two-year run with the play. The founder and senior pastor of a nondenominational church in Dallas with 28,000 members, Jakes fills stadiums with his woman-centric revivals, where he urges participants to empower themselves, once filling up the Georgia Dome in Atlanta with 86,000 people who took to heart his message in "Loosed":
"Thank God He calls women with a past. He reaches out and says, 'Get up! You can come to Me' . . . You may have a baby out of wedlock cradled in your arms, but keep pressing on. You may have been abused and molested . . . but don't cease reaching out to Him."
A self-ordained bishop with roots in the Pentecostal church, Jakes ministers to women who've suffered sexual abuse. And yes, he'd turned the concept of women "loosing" themselves from their past into a formidable franchise. Still, Jakes, 47, wasn't exactly confident that he had the wherewithal to penetrate Hollywood. He figured that he'd make his little video, market it to his people, his audience, and hope that word would spread enough to catch the attention of studio suits.
But then, on a whim, "Loosed" was entered in this year's Santa Barbara Film Festival. Just to see. And, to its makers' jaw-dropping surprise, it won the prize for best American film. Variety gave it a glowing review, and Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, happened to read the review, and said hmmm.
"Typically in Hollywood films you see people of faith as objects of [ridicule] or cynical exploiters," Bowles says. "And that obviously doesn't reflect the reality. It's an incredibly underserved audience."
"The Passion of the Christ" primed him for the potential power of the religious market. There are, he says, "a lot more people who go to church on Sundays than who go to the movies." If the film didn't work, he wouldn't have been interested, spiritual theme or not. Basically, he says, he liked the film. And then, of course, there's the instant name recognition that Jakes has.
So his people got with Jakes's people, and a deal was struck to distribute the film. The pairing is counterintuitive: Magnolia Pictures is perhaps best known for distributing documentaries, most notably the Oscar-nominated "Capturing the Friedmans," about a Long Island family destroyed by allegations of pedophilia, and "Control Room," which tracks al-Jazeera's war coverage, and "End of the Century," which charts the Ramones' earliest beginnings as the godfathers of punk.
Bowles and Jakes were convinced that the central drama of "Loosed" would pull in the secular crowd, too. Says Jakes: "This is a film that's been trusted in the hands of the African American community to paint on a canvas. But the artwork should be displayed in the entire American community."
Elise, who hadn't heard of Jakes before she was sent the script, says, "I never looked at it as a religious film. It's not a religious film. It's a universal human story; it just happens to have some scenes at a religious revival."
Jakes, who met with Gibson at a screening of "The Passion," bristles at comparisons between the two films. He'll grant you that the buzz from "Passion" gave his film "synergy," but he insists that he wasn't cribbing from Gibson's marketing manual. Rather, he says, he was employing a technique as old as the African American church, screening his film for congregations around the country, and earlier this month in Washington at the Congressional Black Caucus.
"People familiar with black gospel plays know that the way you market these [films] are through churches and the radio," he says. "That's the way our community works. . . . Hollywood is beginning to take all of us more seriously."